Recipes using autumn crocus, or Colchicum autumnale, have been used since Ancient Greece to relieve the painful symptoms associated with gout and rheumatism. Although the plant’s extreme toxicity and unpredictability made it fall out of use for many centuries, modern medicine is reexamining its usefulness as a prescription drug. In fact, an extract from this plant is used to make modern pharmaceuticals that treat the very same conditions today that it did centuries ago. The “autumnale” in its scientific name refers to this plant’s fall bloom, making it a favorite among gardeners. “Colchicum” is a reference to Colchis, a region at the western end of the Black sea now known as Georgia. Thought to be autumn crocus’s point of origination, this region is also the mythical home of the sorceress Medea, as well as the location of the famed Golden Fleece and destination of the Jason and the Argonauts.
More commonly known as “meadow saffron,” Colchicum autumnale, should not be confused with Crocus sativus, the plant actually used to make saffron. Though these plants look similar, autumn crocus is much more poisonous than Crocus sativus, and misidentification can be fatal. The easiest way to distinguish the two plants is by the number of stamen. Crocus sativus has three, while Colchicum autumnale has six. Another common name for autumn crocus is “naked lady,” because the flowers don’t emerge until after the leaves have died back.
Not all parts of the autumn crocus were used as an herbal remedy. The seeds and corm, where there is a higher concentration of colchicine, were used to make tinctures and extracts for the treatment of gout, rheumatism, and other inflammatory conditions, as well as heart palpitations and digestive problems. They were also used as a painkiller. Small doses were either taken daily to prevent the onset of a condition, or in larger doses to cure an existing one. The corm was sometimes ground to a powder and mixed with wine. The plant also has emetic properties, and it’s said to have been used as a way to fake illness. This was a risky proposition, however. Because of the plant’s extreme toxicity, it was also historically used as a poison.
Colchicine is a modern medication regularly used in the treatment of gout, rheumatism, and familial Mediterranean fever. Although autumn crocus does contain this substance, which is effective in reducing swelling, homemade remedies containing this plant are rarely used due to the difficulty in getting a correct dosage and to the variation of colchicine levels from plant to plant. Prescription colchicine is safer and more effective for these conditions. Because one effect of colchicine is to stop cell division, there is research currently being conducted into the possibility that this medication may be useful in the treatment of cancer.
Using autumn crocus for homemade herbal recipes is not advised, as autumn crocus is poisonous. Unpredictability of colchicine levels dramatically increases the risk of serious injury or accidental death. Autumn crocus can cause vomiting, damage to internal organs, shock, and death. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should absolutely not use autumn crocus. Autumn crocus could potentially cause birth defects. If you are already taking colchicine, using autumn crocus may increase the effects of the medication or cause other adverse interactions. Do not use autumn crocus or colchicine without strict supervision from a qualified medical professional.